We are all witness to disruptive changes in the landscape of work—both its definition and its level of technological augmentation are constantly being rewritten. And these changes are only accelerating.  

Why Is Our World of Work Changing So Rapidly? 

McKinsey research has shown that by using currently available technology we can already automate about 45 percent of the work activities done in the United States. Once the technologies that process natural language reach an average level of human performance, another 13 percent of work activities stand to be automated as well. Low interest rates have also made capital cheaper than people.

If you combine these factors you’ll see what’s driving this automation acceleration in organizations—even beyond robotics in areas such as production and manufacturing. We are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the Second Machine Age. It’s an era fueled by furious strides in computational powers, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Think about this: In the first Machine Age we built machines, and taught or programmed them to do tasks. Now the machines are teaching themselves, and may even end up teaching us. 

Let’s Visit an Amazon Warehouse to Illustrate 

If you were to visit an Amazon warehouse, you’d see it rearranging itself, almost as if by magic. Small Roomba-like robots that move freely around the warehouse lift and reposition huge cabinets—filled with anything from books to bikes and transport them to the best location. If a cabinet contains goods that need to be packed, it’s transported to the packers. If it has goods that are frequently shipped, the cabinets get closer to the packers; if not, the cabinets are sent to the back of the room. Is anyone telling these roaming robots where to go and what to do? Nope. They’re learning autonomously and programming themselves. 

Advertisement

What Will This Second Machine Age Mean for Us? 

In the last two centuries only dirty, dangerous, or dull jobs were automated. Today we’re witnessing the automation of more sophisticated knowledge work. According to research by Oxford University, 47 percent of all jobs in the United States and around 33 percent of those in Europe are at high risk of being replaced by technology within the next two decades. For the near term, the World Economic Forum predicts that the United States alone will lose 5.1 million jobs by 2020.

Given these striking statistics, it’s easy to feel only gloom and doom. But there is hope. Join our session at ATD 2017 Conference & Exposition to hear about some tangible handles that our field can embrace to help our companies and institutions prepare for the future.